Wednesday, 17 October 2018 07:46

Google chief says China search engine looks 'promising'

Sundar Pichai: "There are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what's available." Sundar Pichai: "There are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what's available." Courtesy YouTube

In what are Google's first public comments about its plan to launch a censored search engine in China, chief executive Sundar Pichai has told a conference that what has been developed so far is "very promising".

Pichai was quoted by the Wired website on Monday night US time as saying that the censored search engine would be able to serve more than 99% of queries made by users. There was no indication of how Pichai knew what queries would come from Chinese users.

The Google chief also stressed that there were numerous areas in which the search behemoth could provide better information than what was available, citing cancer treatments as one example.

And he added, "Today people either get fake cancer treatments or they actually get useful information.”

The Intercept, the website that revealed the China plan on 1 August, has never received a response from Google to its queries about the project, which is codenamed Dragonfly. According to Ryan Gallagher, the journalist who broke the story, more than a dozen requests for comment have gone unanswered.

Pichai has even ignored questions from US legislators about the move to re-enter China, a country Google quit in 2010 after running a censored search engine there for four years, after its servers were hacked.

Responding to a letter from six senators — Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia, Ron Wyden of Oregon and Robert Menendez of New Jersey — Pichai evaded answering any of the questions they had raised.

His response contained what could be characterised as motherhood statements, like ""We are committed to promoting access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy, as well as to respecting the laws of jurisdictions in which we operate. We seek to strike the right balance in each context."

In the Wired report, Pichai also doubled down on the Dragonfly project, saying: "We are compelled by our mission [to] provide information to everyone, and [China is] 20% of the world's population.” There was no mention of who had given Google this mission or whether the company was doing so just to increase its profits.

He described the Chinese market as wonderful and innovative. "We wanted to learn what it would look like if we were in China, so that's what we built internally," he said. “Given how important the market is and how many users there are we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a longer-term view.”

The six senators had asked Pichai the following questions:

  • "Is Google in the process of developing a censored search engine or other censored applications for China? If so, will this be part of a joint venture with a Chinese domestic partner?
  • "What has changed since 2010 to make Google comfortable cooperating with the rigorous censorship regime in China?
  • "In many cases, the entrance of a western firm in China is conditioned upon that firm entering a joint venture with a domestic Chinese ?rm. Was Google's decision to enter a joint venture with Tencent connected in any way with its efforts to enter the Chinese market via the custom search app?
  • "If Google is working on a search product for the mainland Chinese market, which 'blacklist' of censored searches and websites are you using? Are there any phrases or words that Google is refusing to censor?
  • "Will Google employees involved in managing 'Dragonfly' be required to attend the official mandatory trainings on 'Marxist news values' and 'socialist values' as required of other technology companies that provide Internet news content services in China?
  • "Presumably Google will comply with China's Cyber Security Law and its data localisation requirements. Will Google provide information about the search histories of individual users to Chinese government authorities? What confidence does Google have that its local joint venture partner will abide by any user protections that Google puts in place?"

In the two months since Gallagher broke the story, there have been a number of developments:

  • US Vice-President Mike Pence has called on Google to scrap the project;
  • Reported comments by Google search chief Ben Gomes have contradicted the company's public stance on the project;
  • There have been reports about internal unrest among Google employees over the project;
  • A letter about the "urgent moral and ethical issues" surrounding the project was sent around inside the company;
  • There have also been reports that managers at the company were trying to shut down access to any material connected to the project; and
  • Another report said that engineers had used search queries from a Chinese Web directory service owned by Google to develop blacklists for the censored search engine.

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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